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A QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF
Vol. xxix. July, 1912. No. 3.
BIRD GENEALOGY. 1
BY CHARLES W. TOWNSEND, M. D.
Arceleopteryx had teeth in its jaws, separate hip bones, bi-
concave vertebrfe, claws on its front limbs and a vertebrated tail,
all marks of the reptile, in which group it might still be placed
by some, were it not for the fact that the impression of the
feathers has been preserved to us and stamps its essential bird
nature. The links between birds and their reptilian predecessors
are very perfect.
Now if birds are descended from reptiles, one may perhaps still
find some traces of this lowly origin in the infantile period of bird
life, just as there are various ear-marks of the savage of the jungle
in the infancy of the most gilded city dweller, not to mention the
transient and permanent reversions often found among adults of
the race. Thus the Hoatzin of the Orinoco when young, has
claws on the wings and scrambles about the branches in a truly
reptilian style, a mode of progression that, according to Beebe, is
still used by the adults.
One need not go so far as the Orinoco, however, to find evidences
of the quadrupedal reptilian mode of progression in birds, as
witness the actions of young Herons before they learn to fly, when
with wings and legs they climb about their family tree almost as
gracefully, I dare say, as did some of the ancient winged reptiles.
• Read before the Nuttall Ornithological Club, March 4, 1912.
286 Townsend, Bird Genealogy. [j u i y
The extension of the so-called thumb or bastard wing in the Pigeon
and other birds as they approach their perch may in the same way
hark back to the time when the reptilian ancestor grasped with its
fore feet its goal on the tree tops. Both young Green and Night
Herons elevate the bastard wing at times as they climb about the
trees, but I have never seen them attempt to use it for grasping.
Left with a couple of young English Sparrows on my hands
owing to the destruction of their nest caused by the closing of a
blind, I dropped them into a basin of tepid water, expecting the
inert masses to sink or at least that their wabbly heads would fall
below the surface. On the contrary they became endowed with
life and vigor as if upon their native heath, and, with a combination
of rapid wing strokes and leg action, and with necks outstretched
they scudded across the surface of the miniature pond.
Blood will out, the reptilian ancestry was working! To make
sure that this was not an accident I dropped a young Red-winged
Blackbird into the pool below his nest. He too performed in ex-
actly the same manner and safely reached some reeds up which he
scrambled, and was there well taken care of by his excited parents.
It is probable that many a passerine bird nesting over the water
has been saved from destruction by this return to primitive methods.
Further experimentation with young Crows and Bronzed Grack-
les showed me that very young birds generally moved the wings
alternately, while older ones always napped both together as in
flight. From this one would infer that the primitive reptilian
scramble was naturally an alternate method while the simultaneous
method was simply the more advanced style used in flight.
In the case of the Chimney Swift the method of flight has been
thought to be an alternate flapping of the wings. Let anyone
watch these curious birds as they dart with amazing speed through
the air, and I am sure he will agree that the wings are used alter-
nately with great rapidity. Steady flight by this method is, I
believe, mechanically possible. One might argue therefore that the
Swifts retain the more primitive or reptilian method of moving
the front limbs and are therefore members of a very early branch
on the avian tree, although it is possible that through extreme
specialization they have returned to this form of flight.
If this prone method of propulsion on the water on all fours is a
° 1912 J Townsend, Bird Genealogy. 287
primitive one, as indeed it must be, then birds that swim in an
erect Duck-like manner must have advanced beyond this stage
and become specialized. I have several times seen young Spotted
Sandpipers that were unable to fly, swim with ease like little
Ducks, although when very young and much frightened they
return to the primitive reptilian scramble on all fours. All of
the members of the Shore Bird family swim naturally if they find
themselves in water beyond their depths. Phalaropes habitually
disport themselves on the surface of the water as gracefully as
miniature Swans. It would seem to be a natural inference, there-
fore, that the ancestors of Shore Birds were swimmers and that
the art of swimming is inherited and not developed by this group,
and that the Phalarope is a case of reversion. The awkward
action of a young seal at its first bath is an example of a case where
the art of swimming has been recently acquired by a group and
where it is not one of long inheritance.
In the classification of birds proposed by Hans Gadow the order
Charadriiformes, or Plover-like birds, includes the Shore Birds,
Gulls, Auks and Pigeons. The Shore Birds, we have just seen,
show evidence of a swimming ancestry, although, with the excep-
tion of the Phalaropes, they habitually prefer the shore under their
feet, even if it is wet and partly covered with water, to the deep
sea. The presence of partial webs, as in the Willet and in the
Semipalmated Plover and Sandpiper, point to the former existence
of the swimming habit, for these birds like other Shore Birds do
not swim except when unexpectedly forced to it.
If the partial web in the foot of the adult Shore Bird showed the
beginning of the swimming habit in birds of land ancestry we
should find the young birds like young seals very inexpert in the
water. As the reverse of this is the case our conclusion that
these birds are of water ancestry must be correct.
Gulls and Terns have fully webbed feet but their habits at the
present day hardly justify them in this possession. Webbed feet
are of great advantage to the rapidly swimming bird and to the
diving bird that depends on its feet. Now Terns rarely rest on the
water or swim and Gulls do not often swim rapidly, in fact they
rarely swim at all, but drift about, while if either bird descends
below the surface, it is as a result of the velocity of its plunge from
288 Townsend, Bird Genealogy. [j u i y
the air, and its feet are probably not used. In fact the web,
although useful, is largely wasted on these birds, and it is evident
that it is ancient and points to a swimming ancestry. That this
ancestry is less remote than in the Shore Birds is perhaps shown
by the fact that a wing-tipped Gull, falling on the beach will take to
the water, and swim vigorously out to sea, while a similarly crippled
Shore Bird falling into the water will swim to the beach and endea-
vor to run inland to hide.
Before they are able to fly, young Skimmers are said to seek
safety by running into the water, another evidence of their water
ancestry. Chapman in his " Camps and Cruises of an Ornitholo-
gist," speaking of young Common Terns a few days old, says:
"several were seen to enter an inflowing creek, drink repeatedly
of the salt water and swim actively, in evident enjoyment of their
natatorial powers, while the parents, who rarely alight on the water,
watched them from the shore. Possibly here was an explanation
of the value to Terns of webbed toes. Functionless in the adult
they are of service to the young, before the power of flight is ac-
quired." In this supposition he is probably right, although this
service to the young is not the reason for the existence of the webs,
but the observation points very clearly to the swimming ancestry
of the birds. We could not have stronger proof of it.
That the Auks are out and out water birds there needs no defence,
but one is at first sight puzzled by the presence of the Pigeons in
this group. The older systematists placed the Pigeons with the
Partridge and Domestic Fowl tribe, but Pigeons may be seen
wading in puddles in a manner that would alarm the Barnyard
Cock. I have been told by a Pigeon fancier that young Pigeons
are much attracted by water, and fond of bathing therein, and
that young birds are liable to drown themselves in tanks or troughs
if these are accessible to Pigeon lofts. I recently placed a half-
grown Domestic Pigeon in a wash-tub of tepid water. With head
and neck erect, the bird swam rapidly with alternate strokes of the
feet to the side of the tub. The wings were arched up and waved
slightly, — not stretched out and flapped in the water as in the
case of young Passerine birds. Its position was like that of a
Duck but low in the water. Progress was much more rapid than
on land where the bird stumbled awkwardly along. Indeed it had
'i9i2 J Townsend, Bird Genealogy. 289
never before left the nest. I repeated the experiment several
times with the same result. A fact of considerable interest in this
connection is that "A Pigeon with a perfectly webbed foot [was]
evolved at Cambridge by only three years' selected crossings." 1
This may be looked upon as a case of reversion. The throwing
of somersaults in the air similar to those of the Tumbler Pigeon
has been reported in the case of the Black-bellied Plover.
The Sheathbill, Chionis, is so ancestral and generalized in its
type that it suggests all the groups we have just been considering.
Anatomically it is allied to the Oyster-catchers and the Gulls. It
is often classed among the Plovers, but it is as marine in its haunts
as are the Auks, and in flight it resembles the Gulls. Its appearance
on land, gait and manner of courting are very much like those of
a Pigeon, and it goes by the name of ' Kelp Pigeon.'
While young Terns take to the water, young Cormorants when
pursued take to the shore. This would suggest a terrestrial an-
cestry of these birds, and according to Gadow, Cormorants strik-
ingly resemble the New World Vultures, and the habit of both
these birds of sitting with their wings spread is suggestive of
kinship. The fact that Cormorants on rising into the air hop with
the feet together, although their usual gait is a waddle, suggests
a former arboreal life, and many Cormorants still nest in trees.
Tree dwellers naturally hop from branch to branch, and it is
probable that the earliest birds were arboreal. When the tree-
dwelling bird descends to the ground it naturally hops there also,
but hopping is not a satisfactory method of progression for a
ground-feeder, — it does not permit of cautious approach, and it is
decidedly jarring. A walking gait, therefore, may be understood
to indicate a long custom of feeding or dwelling on the ground.
Although the Flicker is frequently seen on the ground, the ground
habit is probably but recently acquired, for it has not learned to
walk, while the Robin for example is able to run, and does so much
more often than it hops. Young Robins show, however, their
arboreal ancestry by hopping more than they run. Pipits, Horned
Larks and Ipswich Sparrows have so completely departed from
arboreal habits, that they run easily and walk with grace. Walking
1 T. Digby Plgoit, "London Birds and other Sketches". London. 1902, p. 239.
290 Townsend, Bird Genealogy. [july
appears to be acquired later than running. It is a very interesting
fact that the Savannah Sparrow, frequenter of meadows and
marshy pastures, generally hops even when on smooth ground,
although it is also a good runner, while its near relation the Ipswich
Sparrow, frequenter of sandy wastes, almost never hops and is a
Herons as far as I know, although constantly in the water very
rarely swim, but that they come of a swimming ancestry seems
probable from the behavior of a young Green Heron not old enough
to fly that I put in the water. It sat erect on the surface and swam
off with a grace and ease that contrasted forcibly with its awkward
movements on land. Not only was its poise graceful and Swan-
like, but the speed with which it swam, the practiced manner in
which it feathered its ungainly toes, the ease with which it threaded
its way among the grass stalks, and dabbed every now and then
at the water with its bill, all pointed to an inherited instinct, an
instinct, however, that is largely if not entirely lost in adult life.
This young Heron had never practiced the art of swimming before
— it had probably never left the nesting tree, which was on a
marsh island some distance from even the highest tides. Adult
Herons like some Shore Birds show their swimming ancestry by a
distinct web between the middle and outer toes.
The use of the wings under water in some diving birds and the
significance of this fact I have already discussed in another place. 1
One is apt to think of evolution as a thing of the past, an ac-
complished fact, and to forget that at the present period of time
this great law is still as existent as it has been since the world
began. With change in environment, there comes through natural
selection acting on slight variations and occasional mutations a
change in the structure to fit the new environment, and in time
a new species is developed. As new species arose in the past, so
they must be in various stages of formation at the present time.
The great group of American Warblers are for the most part slender-
billed, insect-eating birds, that go south with the approach of cold
weather. One of them, however, is enabled to spend the winter
on the bleak New England coast by a change from an insectiv-
» Auk, XXVI, 1909, pp. 234 to 248.
V0l 'i9i? IX ] Townsbnd, Bird Genealogy. 291
orous to a seed-eating habit. The Myrtle Warbler thrives through
the cold winters chiefly on a diet of bayberries, while all the other
members of this family seek more genial climes, where they may
continue to live on insects. Not only this, but a large number
of its own species go south, and winter in the Greater Antilles,
Mexico and Panama, where insect food is of course abundant.
The New England birds eat not only bayberries, but also the seeds
of grass and weeds that extend above the snow, and they glean
the bark of trees like Titmice.
Now birds like men are clannish; in fact there is a remarkable
similarity between animal and human nature, — which is not so
surprising when one considers our origin and relationships. Among
savages slight differences due to different environment, set apart
one group or race from another. Each race considers itself the
people, and despises, fights and refuses to mix with the other. The
Eskimo and the Indian, although both manifestly of Eastern
origin, so dislike each other that intermarriage, except under the
influence of civilization, is rare. This tendency makes of course
for differentiation; without this tendency the constant mixture
of races would make the production of new species more difficult.
While this clannishness is most marked among savages, it is also
so pronounced in civilized races that each nation classes all foreign-
ers, especially those that speak a different tongue, as their inferiors
with whom intermarriage is not to be thought of. The more
ignorant the individuals, that is to say the more primitive or
animal-like, the more intense is this clannishness, and, its boun-
daries may be limited, not by the nation or state, but even by the
village in which the individuals live. Mr. Punch's collier who
proposed ' leaving 'alf a brick' at the stranger in town is an in-
stance in point.
The element of home also enters into this exclusiveness which
favors the formation of races, and hence of new species. This
factor is strongly shown in the human species unless the individual
has become cosmopolitan by travel and education; and the in-
habitants of what appears to an outsider to be a most desolate
region regard their home as superior to any other country on the
globe, and pine if taken away from it.
Now the seed-eating Myrtle Warbler that spends its winters
in the cold and stormy north is undoubtedly as clannish as the
292 Townsend, Bird Genealogy. uvly
Eskimo, and considers itself superior to the south-seeking Myrtle
Warbler, and it would probably pine for its northern home if
transplanted by force with the rest of the species to tropical regions.
In addition, its clannishness probably impels it to chose a summer
home apart from its southern relations.
At present man cannot distinguish the northern from the
southern Myrtle Warbler, just as in the remote past, it is probable
that the Eskimo could not be distinguished from the Indian. In
time, however, aided by this inherent clannishness and love of
home, one might predict that a larger race of northern Myrtle
Warblers would be formed with thicker, stronger bills and more
muscular gizzards. Indeed I have endeavored to investigate these
three points in order to discover whether a beginning had been
made in the evolution of this new species, but I have not as yet
examined enough material to throw any light on the subject.
One can easily see how important the element of clannishness is,
for without it interbreeding might for a long time, if not indefinitely
delay the birth of a new species. The importance of clannishness
in the evolution of races and species, has I believe never been given
As among men so among birds there are striking differences in
ambition and ability to succeed. Some men, some families, some
nations are progressive, — they are always reaching out for new
opportunities and taking advantage of them. Others are retiring,
unambitious and contented to remain where they are. One of the
most remarkably progressive birds is the Horned Lark which has
spread to nearly every part of the continent, and has made each
part so much its home that it has adapted itself to the environment
to the extent of changing its own form and plumage. There are
now recognized fourteen different North American races or sub-
species of the Horned Lark. The pushing character of the bird
is shown in the recent extension of the breeding range of the
Prairie Horned Lark from the central part of the continent to New
England. In 1889 it was first recorded as breeding in Vermont,
and the same year in central Massachusetts. In 1903 it reached
the sea and bred at Ipswich and has come there to raise its young
ever since, meanwhile increasing in numbers throughout the New
England states. 1
> Auk, XXr, 1904, p. 81.
V ° 1 'i9i2 aX ] Townsend, Bird Genealogy. 293
The Song Sparrow has adapted itself in twenty different forms
to all parts of the continent, and is abundant almost everywhere.
Incidentally it is interesting to compare a map of North America
showing the various lingual races of Indians with one showing the
various races of Song Sparrows. Both maps show an extensive
race in the more uniform east — the Algonquin Indians, and the
melodia sparrow, — while both show in the diversified surface of
the extreme West numerous races of both man and bird.
What a contrast is the enterprise shown by the Song Sparrow
to the lack of enterprise in the case of such a bird as the Swamp
Sparrow, for instance. Although first cousin to the Song Sparrow
and although it is spread over a large territory, the Swamp Sparrow
limits itself to the almost uniform environment of swamps, and
has therefore never developed any races.
Another bird which is showing great developmental or evolution-
ary possibilities is the Grackle both Purple and Bronzed. This
bird instead of shunning man has beeij bright enough to appreciate
the fact that it is safest from persecution when in most intimate
relations with him. It has come into his towns and cities, and it
does not hesitate to build its nests on his houses. In Boston,
although there had been a few previous records, it was not until
1900 that the Bronzed Grackle began to breed regularly in the
Public Garden, and the numbers increased so that thirty-two nests
were counted there by Mr. H. W. Wright in 1906. In 1907 they
first began to build nests in the vines on my Ipswich house, and
two pair have nested there every summer since, when I permitted.
In the matter of food they are not particular, or rather their
appetite is a catholic one, and they can adapt themselves to cir-
cumstances. They are able to pick eggs out of a Robin's nest and
peas from pods in the garden, and they undoubtedly serve a useful
purpose in towns and cities by diminishing the English Sparrow
nuisance. I have seen one hold down a struggling English Sparrow
with its foot while it deliberately pecked out its brains. While
the English Sparrows follow Robins hunting worms on the lawn,
and saucily snatch the worm away from their very mouths, they
keep at a safe distance from the Grackle, and if he so much as
stops to look at them, they fly off in terror. In fact Grackles put
to flight the innocent Robins. I have seen a Grackle partly run
294 Townsend, Bird Genealogy. [july
and partly hop with wings extended toward a Robin that was
digging worms near by, making the Robin desert the spot on which
the Grackle then dug.
But the most interesting development of the Grackle, one that
shows its great adaptability and intelligence, is a habit it has of
picking up food from the water, after the manner of the Herring
Gull. A Grackle will hover close to the water its head to the wind,
and then suddenly drop, and with its bill pick up from the surface
some morsel as gracefully as a Gull. This they do at times with-
out wetting their plumage; at other times the bill, feet and tail
are immersed, while I once saw a Grackle splash his whole body
into the water and entirely immerse his head, to emerge without
difficulty, carrying in his bill what appeared to be a small silvery
fish. I have seen them after sailing and hovering over the water
in a high wind with the spray dashing about them, skilfully pick
up food from the tops of the waves.
It is easy to picture an island community of Grackles becoming
more and more addicted to a maritime life, owing perhaps to the
shrinking of their terrestrial food supply due to a change of climate
or to land subsidence. Would not these habits become in time
as much inherited as are similar habits in the Gulls? Or, to put
the question in another way, were not the inherited traits of the
Gulls originally acquired?
The Ipswich Sparrow is the only strictly dune dweller among the
birds. Its summer home is on Sable Island, an island of sand dunes
off Nova Scotia, and it spends its winters along the sandy portions
of the Atlantic coast. It is evidently a near relation of the Savan-
nah Sparrow, which is somewhat smaller and darker, and lives
chiefly in marshes and open fields from Labrador to New Jersey.
As the glaciers receded we can picture the gradual pushing north
of the Savannah Sparrows, and their extension to the great sandy
wastes that fringed the coast for miles. As the land sank and the
waters rose restricting these regions of sand, the struggle for life
among the clan that preferred the sand dunes must have been an
intense one, and it is probable that the larger and stronger birds,
as well as those that more nearly matched in color their surround-
ings were the more likely to survive. Isolation from the main
land finally aided in the work, and at last a distinctly new species
V ° I 'i9i2 aX ] Phillips, The American Black Ducks. 295
was evolved, a bird larger than the Savannah Sparrow of the main
land, and of a gray or sandy, rather than a black and brown color,
so that when it squatted in terror on the sand the sailing Hawk
was more apt to pass it by.
It seems to me, therefore, that the evolution of the Ipswich
Sparrow is comparatively recent, and that the age of this species
may be counted by the paltry fifty thousand years or so that have
elapsed since the last glacial period.
A RECONSIDERATION OF THE AMERICAN BLACK
DUCKS WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE TO
BY JOHN C. PHILLIPS.
There are several species of primitive ducks which for many
reasons are of peculiar interest, on account of their remarkable
geographical distribution and mutual interrelationship. This
group of species is composed of Anas fulvigula, Anas tristis, Anas
diazi, Anas wyvilliana and Anas laysanensis. Most of these are
poorly represented in collections and this fact has led to certain
misconceptions. It is the purpose of the following notes to point
out some of these mistakes, and to say a few words about individual
and sexual variation.
To begin with I wish to call attention to the principal difficulty
in the proper understanding of these local races; this is the presence
of a sexual difference in plumage, increasing probably with age,
and comparable, with that of the Hawaiian duck (Anas wyvilliana).
In this way all these related species can be separated from A.
tristis in which the sexes are similar. At first I thought that this
sex difference was confined to A. diazi and I started to limit these
notes to the latter species, but as more specimens turned up I
thought it better to consider all the American Black Ducks.